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Nabokov's "Lectures on Literature"

Today I found this gem from the MSN messageboard.

From:   HeHireDramaticJet (original message)  Sent: 29-7-2008 20:43

I just finished reading Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, and it is a very mixed bag. At his best, as in the lecture on Madame Bovary, Nabokov gives us insights into the novel that makes one want to re-read it immediately. But at its worst, as in the very disappointing lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Nabokov does little more than summarise the work: as I was reading this particular section of the book, I found myself saying: “I know, I know … I’ve read the damn thing!”

The lectures are, as one would expect given Nabokov’s somewhat eccentric personality, rather idiosyncratic – although for me at any rate, engagingly idiosyncratic. These are, essentially, transcriptions of lectures, and there is little attempt to structure the material into coherent and closely argued critical essays. Nonetheless, there are marvellous insights scattered throughout, and Nabokov’s enthusiasm for these works is infectious.

Not that he’s too enthusiastic about the first work: Austen’s Mansfield Park. Nabokov admits quite openly that Austen is not really his sort of thing. (Apparently, the only reason he included Mansfield Park is because his friend, the eminent critic Edmund Wilson, had declared Austen & Dickens to be far and away the greatest English novelists.) However, he is very respectful about it, pointing out throughout the considerable merits of Austen’s writing. He is, however, censorious about Austen presenting the narrative through letters in the latter part of the novel, and this seems to me rather unfair, as it is entirely consistent with the narrative pattern of the novel: throughout Mansfield Park, the pattern has been that the narrative focus remains on Fanny Price, who, given her passive nature, is always at one remove from the main action of the novel. This is particularly apparent in that very carefully orchestrated scene (which Nabokov analyses in some detail) in which they all visit Rushworth’s estate, and, while all the characters pair off with each other and wander around the place, the narrative remains with Fanny, who is quite static in the centre of it all. Fanny never actually acts: throughout the novel, Fanny really only does one thing, and that is a negative action – she rejects Henry Crawford. And this lack of action on Fanny’s part seems to me the entire point: she is the still, static point at the centre of all the activity. So it seems to me perfectly correct for the narrative to remain with Fanny while the climactic events happen at a distance from her.

(Another major theme in Mansfield Park that no critique I have read seems to deal with is that of displacement, and of identity. Fanny was displaced at the age of ten from the only life she had known to an entirely new and different environment: such a displacement has profound psychological effects, and affects very powerfully how one views one’s own identity. Austen’s depiction of this seems to me very perceptive indeed; and while it is true that various strands of the plot are resolved off-stage when Fanny is in Portsmouth, the climactic point of this particular strand takes place onstage during the same Portsmouth episode. I would be interested to read an analysis of this aspect of the novel by someone who is more in sympathy with Austen’s art than I am.)

One can almost hear Nabokov breathe a sigh of relief as he moves on from Mansfield Park to Bleak House, which is a novel he seems to love without reservation. Once again, we shouldn’t look for a coherently presented argument, but he provides us instead flashes of brilliant critical insight that are well beyond anything that plodders such as myself could ever hope to come up with.

The next section, on Madame Bovary, is possibly the best in the whole collection: it made me want to go back and read not only Madame Bovary, but everything else Flaubert has written.

Nabokov’s next choice is a bit of a surprise: Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Obviously, it’s a fine work, but it seems a bit out of its depth in such exalted company. And indeed, when Nabokov was planning these lectures, Edmund Wilson had told him that he couldn’t see why Nabokov was bothering with Stevenson, who was merely a “second-rater”. I personally feel this is harsh on Stevenson, who was, I think, a writer of tremendous imagination and ability, and who had still to reach his peak at the time of his untimely death. Nabokov makes a very good case for Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, even though he admits afterwards that the book is “flawed”. I personally am delighted to see this book being taken seriously: it more than deserves its accolade.

The next two lectures – on Proust & Kafka – are both terribly disappointing. I have only dipped my toes into Proust, and haven’t come close to getting to grips with his massive work: I had high expectations that Nabokov’s lecture might help me in this respect, but as it turned out, there’s nothing in there that I hadn’t worked out for myself at my very cursory first reading. The following lecture, on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, was even more disappointing, as much of the time, Nabokov does little more than summarise the story.

The final and longest lecture in the collection is on Ulysses, and this displays all the virtues and vices of the other parts of the book. After a few prefaratory remarks, Nabokov goes through the book chapter by chapter, at best commenting on whatever catches his fancy (as I said, these are not closely argued essays), and at worst merely summarising the content. His insights were certainly interesting, but all too often I found myself saying under my breath: “Yes, yes, I know…” I can’t say I’d recommend this as a commentary on Ulysses. But it's fascinating, nonetheless., and full of superb insights. Nabokov disapproves of Joyce's toilet humour, and there are a few passages he finds weak, but for most of it, he can barely supress exclamations of wonder and of awe!

I suppose that if a poll were to be taken amongst those who care for such matters of the greatest novel of the 20th century, it would be Ulysses and A la Recherche du Temp Perdu that would share the top spot. I love Ulysses, but Proust's masterpiece I have yet to come to gris with: what a shame that Nabokov does not provide insights into Proust's novel similar to those he provides for Ulysses!

Overall, as I say, this book is a mixed bag. In many ways, I share Nabokov’s tastes: I, too, love Dickens & Flaubert & Kafka & Joyce, and I’m sure I’d love Proust as well once I get to know his writing better; and I too find Austen difficult to warm to. But then again, Nabokov had said rude things about Mann and Faulkner, two of my favourite writers; and, even more disappointingly, Nabokov had been very uncomplimentary about Tagore’s poetry. Of course, Nabokov had known these poems only through very poor translations (Tagore’s own – sadly!) which communicated nothing of the glories of the originals; but even so, one might have expected Nabokov, of all people, to have been aware of how misrepresentative bad translations can be. But be that as it may, the enthusiasms he expresses in the lectures in this volume are those I share, and, at their best, these lectures renew that enthusiasm, and make one want to return to these works with a fresh appetite.

And finally, in case anyone is wondering why there is nothing here on Russian literature, that’s because there’s a companion volume by Nabokov entitled Lectures on Russian Literature: it’s sitting on my bookshelf right now, waiting to be read.

From:    Meredith752                                   Sent: 29-7-2008 23:14

Never having managed to finish anything by Nabakov, and having a copy of 'Lolita' that I have never been brave enough to open (as the mother of four daughters, with three granddaughters, it does have certain resonances for me), I was intrigued to know that Nabokov had written something that might, in an oblique way, give me some means of accessing his way of thinking. I'm not sure that your report has actually inspired me to leap in, but it does raise some interesting issues.

I was initially quite startled by the allegation that 'Mansfield Park' relies heavily upon letters. Upon reflection, I recalled that several key pieces of information are indeed communicated by letter (well, e-mail would hardly have been possible, would it?). Jane Austen did experiment with the epistolary form, which had been successful for novelists such as Richardson, with 'Clarissa', and some of her earlier attempts, such as 'Lady Susan', did adopt this narrative method. The novels that were published in her lifetime, however, used a much more straightforward narrative approach, and only relied upon letters in so far as they might naturally have been supposed to have been used to make characters aware of the unfolding of events. So, Himadri, on this matter, I am much more in sympathy with your judgement than with that of Nabokov.

I would love to know what Nabokov had to say about Flaubert and 'Madame Bovary' that makes you want to reread them so quickly. Has he given you new insights that had previously escaped you? I think I stand in relation to Flaubert pretty much where you stand in relation to Jane Austen: my admiration is somewhat grudging, my initial reaction is to say that I do not care for Flaubert's work, but that is not altogether true, since there are aspects of his writing which I have to admit, despite myself, are superb. Whatever my reluctance, I am always open to new perspectives, so, did Nabokov offer anything which might make me warm to Flaubert?

Proust I definitely intend to get back to soon, and Nabokov or not, your mention has given me another nudge in that direction. I know that once I begin, it will rule out most other reading for months and months, but one day soon, I will do it1

From:   HeHireDramaticJet                                 Sent: 30-7-2008 0:15

I think Nabokov was objecting to the mode of narration at the climactic sequence in Mansfield Park, where the elopement of Maria with Henry, and Edmund's disenchantment with Maria, are all narrated via letters rather than depicted directly . Nabokov saw this as evidence of tiredness on the author's part.

On Madame Bovary, Nabokov draws attention to various aspects of Flaubert's technique. Among these is his technique of gradual transformation: where Dickens would (quite deliberately) jump from one theme to another as and when required, Flaubert would move gradually and (for most readers who are not specifically looking out for it) imperceptibly from one theme to the next, or from one viewpoint to the next. Nabokov gives a few examples of this. He also traces some of the imagery of the novel, and how it develops and acquires greater meaning aa the novel progresses. Of course, we can find this sort of thing in many novels, but it's fascinating all the same to read such a detailed account of this sort of development. Nabokov speaks also of Flaubert's technique of counterpoint - of forcing together different strands at key moments - and adding that Joyce , in his "Wandering Rocks" chapter of Ulysses, used this technique derived from Flaubert.

Another point I found fascinating was Flaubert's use of metaphors: when a metaphor pertains to a character, it is consistent with the character's mentality. For instance, here is Emma after Leon's departure:

...sorrow rushed into her hollow soul with gentle ululations such as the winter wind makes in abandoned mansions.

Nabokov adds: "This is the way Emma would have described her own sorrow if she had the artistic genius." This image is dreamy and romantic, reflecting Emma's character.

But when Flaubert applies a metaphor in describing Rodolphe's feelings, the image, in keeping with Rodolphe's personality, is based on the stolid reality he understands:

At last, bored and weary, Rodolphe took back the box to the cupboard, saying to himself, "What a load of rubbish!" Which summed up his opinion; for pleasures, like schoolboys in a schoolyard, had so trampled upon his heart that no green thing grew there and that which passed through it, more heedless than children, did not even, like them, leave a name carved upon the wall.

No dreamy lyricism here!

I have often wondered why it is that I have such reservations about Austen, but love Flaubert's novels dearly. After all, do they not both look down and sneer at human stupidity? Why should I object to it in Austen, but love it in Flaubert? I'll come back to this once I have arranged my thoughts into some sort of order: late at night after a long hard day is hardly the time for this sort of thing!

From:   Meredith752                                           Sent: 30-7-2008 1:28

Thanks for the clarifications there, Himadri. It still sounds a bit nit-picking to object to the use of letters for the denouement of 'Mansfield Park'. The crucial events were provoked precisely because the characters involved were seperated and taken outside the closed circle of the house itself. The letters that communicate the events that happen subsequent to this separation seem to me less of a contrivance than, say, the visit of John Crawford to Portsmouth.

My reservations around Flaubert, on the other hand, seem not so much to relate to his method of narration, which I would admit to be superb, but to his characters and his judgement of them. Thus, in 'Madame Bovary', I tend to become very irritated by Emma and sympathise immensely with Charles, not, I suspect, the way Flaubert intended his readers to respond. I felt similarly at odds with 'A Sentimental Education'.

As you say, it is getting late, and I have got a tough day ahead, so I shall have to duck out of the discussion. But thank you for highlighting these essays by Nabokov: I am just in awe of anyone who has managed to finish one of his books, even if it was not a novel.

From:   HeHireDramaticJet                                   Sent: 30-7-2008 8:41

<<  It still sounds a bit nit-picking to object to the use of letters for the denouement of 'Mansfield Park'. The crucial events were provoked precisely because the characters involved were seperated and taken outside the closed circle of the house itself. >>

Indeed, but it is Fanny that the narrative stays with: the subsequent crucial events that involve the other characters take place off stage, and are merely related, not depicted. I can't say this aspect of the novel bothered me too much.

As for Flaubert - let me return to this theme later: I've been meaning for some time now to talk here about Austen & Flaubert - if only to clarify my own thoughts on the matter!

From:    MikeAlx                                           Sent: 30-7-2008 8:59

Meredith, if you want to 'ease into' Nabokov, might I suggest either "Transparent Things" - a novella of about 100 pages - or perhaps "Nabokov's Dozen", a selection of his short stories? Both are far less demanding than his more famous novels (one day I will finish 'Pale Fire'!).

From:   Evie_again                                           Sent: 30-7-2008 9:56

Thanks from me too for this, Himadri - very interesting. I always love hearing writers on other writers.

Jane Austen uses letters a lot, and I think it often is because she doesn't want to move the narrative around too much - in P&P, for example, letters are used to tell us about Mr Darcy's state of mind and actions, which keeps Lizzie as the main focus - she is not static as Fanny is, but I think JA does like to keep the narrative thread fairly stable. All her novels use letters at crucial points, though I take the point that in Mansfield Park they do reveal more plot details than letters generally do in her books. Nevertheless, I don't think she is being lazy, though I have heard that accusation before; I think she is genuinely interested in the use of letters as a novelistic device.

I am with Meredith on Flaubert - Mme Bovary remains the only novel of his I have read, and it was nearly 25 years ago, but I struggled with it, for the reason Meredith gives - I felt no sympathy for Emma, and lots for Charles. I think I assumed at the time that I was meant to feel that way, but it was not a novel I enjoyed. I should re-read it now, with a bit more maturity - I bought it to make up the book token I had been given when I won the French prize in the 6th form at school, and we subsequently read it in my first year at university - I remember nothing of our actual study of it, though!

As for not wanting to read Nabokov - I also resisted for years, despite not having daughters or granddaughters. I finally read it about a year ago, and it did disturb me for a while. I was eventually won over by the sheer brilliance of Nabokov's writing. The subtlety of the narration - the way he uses the unreliable narrator and yet shows us some of what is going on between the lines, is quite brilliant, and I even felt some sympathy for Humbert Humbert by the end - and had very mixed feelings about Lolita herself, who is no angel. Or is she...? What is amazing is how Nabokov manipulates the reader - we know we are being manipulated, and yet he gets away with it - that doesn't make sense unless you've read the book, I imagine! I don't love the book, and am not sure I'd re-read it, for a while at least, but I was lost in admiration for Nabokov as a writer by the end of it - it is truly great writing, and deals with very contentious and difficult subject matter with a huge amount of skill and philosophical subtlety. Superb.

From:   HeHireDramaticJet                                   Sent: 3-8-2008 13:44

Recently, we had a few brief exchanges on this thread on Austen & Flaubert, and I realised there was a lot I wanted to say on the matter. But I didn’t then have the time to write it all up; and, more importantly, the thoughts weren’t very clear in my own mind. However, I’ve been trying (as best I can) to think about the issues a bit more.

Before I start putting down on PC screen my thoughts on Austen & Flaubert, I should, perhaps, apologise to all Austen fans out there: I really do not intend to indulge in Austen-bashing – that is not the purpose of this post. It seems pointless and childish to be arguing along the lines of “My taste is better than yours”: it’s far more interesting to try to understand why one responds well to certain things, and not so well to others – why it is that our responses may legitimately differ. I keep coming back to my general dislike of Austen because my failure to enjoy the works of an author of such obvious quality is very clearly indicative of the way I perceive literature, and, perhaps, the way I perceive life itself. For many years, I thought that I just didn’t get Austen, but nowadays, I feel that I do get Austen, but that I don’t like what I get: her perspective is far too alien to my sensibilities. To complicate matters, I find myself increasingly attracted to the works of Flaubert, who, at a cursory glance, may seem very similar to Austen in many respects: both viewed humanity with an ironic detachment; both were censorious, and harsh in their judgements of humanity; both looked down on many of their creations; both are lacking in warmth, preferring instead to view humanity with the clarity of a cold and unsentimental light. And yet, for all that, they are different: were they not so, I could hardly dislike the one and love the other. I am, as ever, taking my instinctive reactions as my starting point: if I can react so differently to these two writers, there must be differences – very significant differences – in their writings. And it’s these differences that I am trying here to untangle.

Let me start with Mansfield Park. I read this about three or four years ago, and remember it, if not down to the last detail, at least well enough to give some impressions of it. It seems that my reading of the book is somewhat idiosyncratic, as its principal themes seem to me to be displacement and identity. Fanny is displaced very dramatically at the age of ten – taken away from her parents, from her siblings (to at least some of whom she is particularly attached), and transported far away to an entirely different environment, with no prospect of seeing again the only world she had known. This, at any age, is traumatic: at so impressionably early an age, it must be shattering. To make it worse, the world into which she is displaced is cold and loveless. How does a mere child deal with this?

And it gets worse. Soon after Fanny moves to Mansfield Park, a brother to whom she had been particularly attached dies in her absence. One can but imagine the emotional trauma this must have caused. Indeed, one has to imagine it, because not only does Austen not depict it, she doesn’t even bother mentioning the death until much later in the novel.

I think the reason for this is that Austen wants to discourage any sympathy for Fanny that all of this might occasion in the reader. We may remember the depictions in the early chapters of David Copperfield or of Jane Eyre of the profound emotions that a child may experience. But Austen has no desire to go in that direction. In order to ensure that the reader remains emotionally detached, Austen goes so far as to suppress the incident of the brother’s death. Now, this seems to me as emotionally manipulative as anything in The Old Curiosity Shop, but from the other side: where Dickens wants to emotionally involve the reader (to the extent of forcing false emotions in the particular instance of The Old Curiosity Shop), Austen manipulates the reader into feeling as little emotion as possible. I certainly can’t think of any other reason why Austen should suppress so momentous an event as the death of Fanny’s brother. I can’t say I find this emotional distancing particularly endearing, and, given the choice, would prefer Dickensian sentimentality even at its worst than such emotional coldness.

This is not to suggest that this is an artistic failure on Austen’s part: on the contrary, she achieves exactly what she aims for. Emotional coldness is very characteristic of the whole ethos of Mansfield Park (the novel and the place).  But people who are unsure of where they belong feel more strongly than most the need to belong – to belong somewhere; and since the only realistic option in Fanny’s case is Mansfield Park, she embraces its ethos wholeheartedly, and becomes, as it were, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.

But Mansfield Park is a very cold-hearted place. Later in the novel, when Fanny’s brother William appears, we sense a certain warmth of feeling between brother and sister – a remnant of past times. But we observe no such warmth in the Bertram family, no sense of affection between parents and children, between sibling and sibling. The symbol of the ethos of Mansfield Park is the cold, fireless room in which Fanny likes to sit on her own: it is here she feels most at ease.

Into this environment come the Crawfords, who infect the grey coldness of Mansfield Park with their glittering brightness and vivacity. Fanny, wedded to Mansfield values, disapproves of them, as she disapproves of the very un-Mansfieldian moral laxity into which she perceives her cousins being led, but, as a ward, she knows better than to give open expression to her disapproval. And given the various layers of irony characteristic of Austen, it is hard to see whether she approves of Fanny’s moral rectitude, or whether she saw Fanny censoriousness as merely prissy. Perhaps it doesn’t matter: if Austen had felt it important to let us know where she herself stood on the matter, she would, no doubt, have told us. But what we surely sense is that for all the outward differences, the Crawfords are emotionally shallow, and as incapable of depth of feeling as any of the Bertrams (except, possibly, for the rather serious-minded Edmund).

It is in the climactic chapters set in Portsmouth that the strand involving Fanny’s sense of identity is resolved; and since this is the only strand of the novel that is resolved on-stage, I can’t help feeling a smug sense of satisfaction that my idiosyncratic reading may be on the right lines after all. For Fanny’s Portsmouth family is everything the Bertrams aren’t. I’d describe them as Dickensian were it not that this preceded Dickens. And Fanny is horrified. She is horrified by the clutter, the noise, the crowdedness… The same lassitude that Fanny had accepted without comment in her Mansfield Park aunt she now finds intolerable in her Portsmouth mother. And she realises, once and for all, that it is Mansfield Park, with all its coldness, that is her true spiritual home: she now knows her own identity, and who she is.

And yet, this resolution is highly problematic. Fanny chooses Mansfield Park over Portsmouth because her own origins disgust her, and to feel ashamed of one’s origins is not a particularly likeable trait (it’s what I tend to call the VS Nightfall Syndrome), and speaking for myself, I find it rather distasteful. But in this context, it is entirely believable. The disgust Fanny feels on seeing her Portsmouth family is not too far removed from the disgust Gulliver feels at seeing the Yahoos: no Houyhnhnmn ever felt as strong a sense of disgust as Gulliver feels, and this is because Gulliver is afraid that he may be a yahoo himself.

There is one scene in particular that sticks in the mind. When Henry comes to visit Fanny in Portsmouth, the two of them accidentally come across Fanny’s father, who has had a bit to drink. And Fanny is dreadfully ashamed that Henry should know this drunken man to be her father. But why? It’s not as if her father is completely inebriated, and making an exhibition of himself; and one would be very surprised if Henry were himself to be a stranger to alcohol. And in any case, is not Fanny convinced of Henry’s un-Mansfieldian unworthiness? Why should she care what he thinks of her father, and, by extension, of herself? But for all that, Fanny is mortified by the mere thought that a person with some association with Mansfield Park, her adopted spiritual home, could judge her, Mansfieldian Fanny, as belonging to that world which her father inhabits. I find this a deeply distasteful scene, and all the more distasteful because it is so very believable.

In the end, of course, after a series of off-stage events (which, if my reading is correct, do not constitute the resolution of the principal strand of the novel), Fanny finds herself exactly where she wanted – married to Edmund, and mistress of her spiritual home. It is hard to read through the layers of irony to discover what Austen wanted us to feel about it. Is this the vindication of Fanny’s moral rectitude? Or is it something more ambiguous than that? However one reads it, one may note Fanny’s unyielding censoriousness: even when that slave-owning gentleman Sir Thomas wonders whether it was right to have married Maria off to someone she clearly did not love (such feelings not having much value in Mansfieldian currency), Fanny remains, as ever, unbending, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.

All this makes for a perceptive novel, perhaps even a great novel, but not, as far as I can see, a particularly likeable novel. Admittedly, it’s not the most representative of Austen’s novels: although many rate it as her greatest and her most profound work, it is generally seen to lack the charm and the surface brilliance that Austenites so value. However, it does exhibit a certain trait of Austen’s that I shall return to – an emotional coldness, an unwillingness to engage with deeply felt emotions (even when the content may seem to demand such an engagement), a reluctance to get too close to human passions.

Let us now move on to Flaubert, who at first glance, may appear similar. But there is, it seems to me, one major difference: Flaubert was deeply attached to Romantic values.

In the long post I wrote in the thread on Wuthering Heights, I argued that the novel could not accommodate the soaring qualities of Romanticism. I conjectured, further, that this was the reason the novel as a form went into a sort of decline during the late 18th century and the early 19th centuries (the only indisputably major novelist of that era, Jane Austen, being decidedly unRomantic); and that when the novel reasserted itself once again as a major literary form, it could only do so because, with a few notable exceptions, novelists had, by and large, turned their backs on Romanticism. This is not to say that they all embraced realism: some of the greatest of writers – Gogol, Dickens, Dostoyevsky – had no interest at all in surface realism, and presented highly stylised fictional worlds. But there’s little in the great 19th century novels that can truly be called Romantic. (I’m speaking in very general terms here, and am, inevitably, generalising quite crudely.) And this turning away from Romanticism is one of Flaubert’s major themes.

Madame Bovary, as any student crib notes will tell you, is about the futility of life. It tells you how pointless everything is. This is true up to a point, but if we only see up to that point, we miss virtually all the riches. Because merely to say that life is futile is neither particularly interesting nor profound – even if it happens to be true. Anyone can say that. But Flaubert goes deeper.

Somerset Maugham once wondered why Flaubert made Charles Bovary die of grief after Emma’s death. Surely, Maugham argued, if he’d got over it and married again, that would have added another note of futility. I think this is why, despite his talents, Maugham could never be anything other than a second-rater compared to someone like Flaubert. Because in Flaubert’s vision, one cannot dismiss humanity with a casual shrug of the shoulders, and a cheerful “What does it matter anyway?” That is far too easy. It does matter – it matters because these characters, absurd and stupid though they may be, are nonetheless sentient beings capable of great depths of feeling. And that can’t be shrugged away. Even a figure as absurd and as stupid as Charles Bovary cannot be dismissed, because, despite everything, he is capable of feeling deeply. The scene where he and Homais stay up together after Emma’s death is almost unbearably moving – all the more so because Charles’ understanding of the situation is so inadequate.

Emma is not the brightest of people: her Romanticism is merely sentimental. To have presented her as a pure representative of Romantic ideals who is crushed by a philistine world would have been far too formulaic and crude for an author as subtle as Flaubert. (Although, looking through the net, it appears that there are many readers who do appear to see this novel in such crude terms.) Emma’s Romanticism, is just as stupid and as insipid as Homais’ philistinism: the rebellion is just as flawed as that which it is rebelling against – and therein lies the profound sadness of it all.

We may or may not sympathise with Emma, but that, I think, is perhaps beside the point. The emotions we sympathise with – or at least, the emotions that I find myself sympathising with – are the author’s. And these are emotions of deep sadness – sadness that life should be like this, when those ideals that he still can’t bring himself to discard tell him that life should be so much more. Romanticism urged us all to aspire towards something great and noble, and the sorrowful awareness that humanity is not capable of this is at the heart of just about everything Flaubert wrote.

Austen knew this: of course humanity could not strive towards the transcendent as the Romantics urged them to do, and she found this amusing. Flaubert found it tragic. And therein is the difference. Where Austen refused to take human beings too seriously, Flaubert took them very seriously indeed. While Austen regarded human inadequacy with an amused smile, Flaubert shook his head in sadness.

It is this difference that accounts for Flaubert giving Charles Bovary depth of feeling. In an Austen novel, a character such as Charles would have been no more than a laughing stock: unlike Flaubert, Austen seems temperamentally incapable of taking seriously a figure as absurd as Charles. Take for instance Austen’s representation of Miss Bates in Emma: Austen knows that despite her absurdity, she is a harmless lady, and that it is ungentle and unkind to poke fun at her. Mr Knightley says all this quite openly. And yet, Austen just couldn’t resist poking fun at this harmless creature; and she didn’t (or couldn’t) depict any aspect of Miss Bates that gives her any sort of depth. She couldn’t, in short, make of her what Flaubert had made of Charles Bovary: at no point is Miss Bates depicted as anything other than a tiresome old bat.

We may also consider in this context the character of Félicité in “Un Coeur Simple”. Here we have a character of apparently no interest at all – a dull, uneducated, unintelligent woman, with absolutely nothing remarkable about her. But what is remarkable is that Flaubert finds her interesting – interesting enough to be the central figure of this remarkable story. There are many opportunities where he might have encouraged her to laugh at her, but he never does this. When her beloved nephew goes abroad, a local resident offers to show her in an atlas where he had gone to. She eagerly accepts, but is then puzzled to be shown maps, which mean nothing to her: she was expecting see pictures of the country to which he has gone, and of the house in which he is living. The educated man who shows her the map laughs at her ignorance and stupidity, but we don’t laugh. And is there anything quite so wonderful as that ending? In her old age, her mind – never her strong point to start with – starts to go. She becomes attached to a pet parrot, and when it does, she is persuaded to have it stuffed. And while she is in church, she confuses a representation of the Holy Spirit with her stuffed parrot. The story ends with her death:

A blue cloud of incense was wafted up into Félicité’sroom. She opened her nostrils wide and breathed it in with a mystical, sensuous fervour. Then she closed her eyes. Her lips smiled. Her heart-beats grew slower and slower, each a little fainter and gentler, like a fountain running dry, an echo fading away. And as she breathed her last, she though she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering over her head.

(Translated by Robert Baldick)

Yes, this is absurd, and, if you like, comic. But I also find it painfully moving. This is not the writing of a man who simply looked down on humanity.

Or what about L’Education Sentimentale? I think I have stopped recommending this novel, as no-one who has read it on my recommendation has enjoyed it. And yet, it is a novel that I have found true to my own experiences, and, despite its studied detached style, it moves me profoundly. I still sometimes turn to that chapter where, many years after the main action of the novel, Frédéric meets Madame Arnoux again, for one last time:

In every parting there comes a moment when the beloved is no longer with us.

(Translated by Robert Baldick, revised by Geoffrey Wall)

Is that line really written by a hard-bitten cynic? Or what about that heartbreaking moment, in the same scene, when Madame Arnoux takes off her hat to reveal her white hair? This is a novel that really does move me beyond words: there is an emotional depth here that the very unromantic Austen never even aimed for.

Ultimately, what one does or does not respond to is a matter of individual temperament, and I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy Austen’s amused detachment. But Flaubert’s deep sorrow that life is as it is continues to attract me, and to move me.

From:   DoggoneScousedog                         Sent: 16-9-2008 22:14

That has to be the longest post I have ever seen in my life!

I've read Nabokov' Lectures on Literature, or rather the bits about the books I've read (Ulyssess, Bleak House, Metamorpheses and Madame Bovary).  It's fair to say it's not your usual sort of critique.  From what I remember he was primarily interested in structure, form and technique, rather than say, themes and characterisation.  The bit on Kafka was strange.  Analysing Metamorpheses is no easy task but Nabokov's were sometimes more baffling than the novella itself!  Throughout the lectures there was a great degree of reiterating the story, but I'd agree that the lecture on Madame Bovary offered a lot more.  I recall I'd just read Mdme Bovary when I read the lecture and I'd enjoyed th novel, but then Nabokov told me exactly why I'd enjoyed the novel!  Apparantly it wasn't just a good story told with an especially poetic flourish - it was all down to Flaubert's technique.  Nabokv then goes onto to strip down passages like you would a car engine, explainng exactly what Flaubert was doing line by line.  It really made me appreciate the artistry of the author.

So, yes, a mixed bag, but I'd still like to read the lectures on Russian Literature.  Can you tell me what novels he covers?

From:    HeHireDramaticJet                         Sent: 16-9-2008 23:15

<< That has to be the longest post I have ever seen in my life! >>

Nah! - You ought to see my Wuthering Heights post!  

Anyway, stranger, it's great to see you around these parts again.

In Notes on Russian Literature, Nabokov covers:

Gogol: Dead Souls and "The Overcoat"
Turgenev: Fathers and Sons (there's an excellent essay on this by Isaiah Berlin that appears as an introduction to the Penguin Classics edition)
Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground (which Nabokov translates as Memoirs from a Mousehole), The Idiot, The Possessed
Tolstoy: Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Illych
Chekhov: ""The Lady With the Little Dog", "In the Gully", The Seagull
Gorky: "On the Rafts"

From:   DoggoneScousedog                          Sent: 17-9-2008 21:29

Excellent! I've read most of those.  As no-one will ever remove it from my Amazon wish list, I think I'll have to buy it myself.  That is, once the economy recovers and I can afford to buy stuff again!

Good to see you are still filling the messageboards with all thindgs good and knowledgeable Himadri.  I can't get on it when at work, and I haven't been reading much this year to be honest.  Too busy decorating I think.  And playing Darts.

I saw Melanie D the other week.  She's still as lovely as ever.  And I shall have to read a lot more Nabokov too.  I'd recommend a short one called The Enchanter, which will be more than a little interesting to anyone who has read Lolita.

Wow, I forgot how long it takes me to write these things!  You know I always did suspect that you were a trained typist good for about a billion words a minute!



Good heavens! - Did I write all that? I have, somehow, got out of the habit of writing long, analytical posts. Funny thing is that even two years later, I still feel much the same way about Austen & Flaubert. Someone once said "If I think the same way today as I thought yesterday, it means I haven't been thinking in the meantime". I suppose I haven't been thiking in the meantime either!

Thanks for putting this up. I'll brush it up a bit, I think, and stick it up on my blog!

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:

Thanks for putting this up.

You’re welcome.
I’m reading Mansfield Park at the moment. That’s why I remembered I had archived this. At the moment I don’t agree with your evaluation of Fanny’s character but I need to finish Mansfield Park before I can defend Fanny properly.


I look forward to it, Marita. When I put up that post initially, I had been hoping that it would lead to some discussion – especially as I realised that my view of the character of  Fanny Price, and of the novel in general, was somewhat out of kilter with the  consensus of critical opinion. I am by no means sure that I have a good grasp of the novel – indeed, I’m sure I don’t – and a good discussion on it would be more than welcome!

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